By Everett Brazil III
Fire ants have been steadily making their way out of Mexico and infesting the Southeastern United States, leaving virtually every county near the Gulf Coast under quarantine.
The ants also have affected Oklahoma, where more than 20 counties on the quarantine. With the drought encouraging many cattle producers to import hay and other feed from outside the state, the risk is high to bring the insect into Oklahoma.
It is possible to avoid infestations, and the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry (ODAFF) is cautioning producers who are buying hay outside the region to protect human and livestock interests in the county.
Many species of fire ants are native to Oklahoma and do not pose a health hazard. It is the red imported fire ant, native to South America, that is presenting a risk in the U.S.
Imported fire ants are aggressive when disturbed and come out of their mound to protect their territory. Victims may not feel the ants until they have swarmed their body, increasing the risk of severe injury, and even death, from thousands of bites.
"You don't get a few, you get thousands before you feel them. If you make them mad, they come boiling out, and you can get hundreds or thousands boiling out fast. They are very defensive of their mounds," says Rick Grantham of Oklahoma State University.
Hay is a convenient method of transportation for imported fire ants. They pose no risk to the bales, but enter them seeking food and begin spreading once they reach a new location. Because of the risk of fire ants in hay bales, it is illegal to sell hay outside of quarantined counties, especially to producers in counties that don't have a fire ant population. There are exceptions, however, and producers who have entered into a compliance agreement with the USDA and state agriculture departments may sell the hay. The agreement ensures the producers maintain the bales to prevent fire ants from infesting them.
The risk is greater for producers importing the hay. Many experts urge producers to learn the origin of the hay before buying it. If it is a quarantined county, a compliance agreement must be available.
"Know where it's coming from. If they are a certified grower with a compliance agreement with the department of agriculture, they are treating the hay or keeping it off the ground," Grantham said.
Fire ants are not typically a problem for cut hay that is immediately removed from the field, because the insect hasn't had enough time to move into it. Storage is the problem. Whether in barns or in an open field, infestations are at higher risk when the hay is kept on bare soil or in pastures.